Get organised: 4 ways to reduce cognitive load for small business owners

Reduce cognitive load header image by Retha Ferguson

 By Tide Member Florian Einfalt

How to get more organised for busy entrepreneurs

If like me, you’re a freelancer or running a small business or start-up, you might be familiar with this:

 “My inbox is bursting at the seams. My to-do items are scattered between hastily-written notes and the reminders app on my phone. I can’t find the right balance between scheduling client work and personal projects. Phones, tablets and computers were supposed to make this much easier but it turns out they’re not helping me…”

If this sounds like you, then you’re ready to improve how you manage and organise your projects and daily activities.

Make it easier by decluttering your mind

The techniques I outline in this post are geared towards reducing cognitive load. This means decluttering what’s going on in your mind. By removing complexity, you’ll only deal with what’s currently relevant to you and your project. This is important when you’re planning and carrying out projects as a freelancer or running a small business because you’ll be able to think more clearly and tire less easily.

I’ve tried and tested these techniques – they’ve helped me manage projects as a freelancer for the last five years and allow me to efficiently run flow.studio, a fashion-tech startup I founded with three friends in 2018. I hope they can help you too.

  1. Get your email inbox to zero
  2. Only look at relevant to-do items
  3. Structure your time in blocks
  4. Let technology help you

1. Get your email inbox to zero

Even after the advent of more suitable communication tools like Slack and Skype, many projects still rely heavily on email. How can we make sure we don’t expend energy on emails that aren’t worth it?

  • Keep your inbox clear
    Treat your inbox as the place for emails that you still have to deal with. It should contain no more than a handful of emails. That means moving any old or irrelevant emails to somewhere else.
  • Create folders and use the Archive
    How you set up your email will depend on what you do. I have a folder for every client and project. If your email system doesn’t already have a generic ‘Archive’ folder, set one up, and move emails into it that should no longer be in your inbox. You can search the Archive if you need to.
  • Be ruthless
    Unsubscribe from newsletters and delete emails. Not interested in someone’s newsletter? Take a few seconds to unsubscribe to cut the distractions in the future. Does the email contain mostly time-bound information not worth keeping? Skim and delete, to save time and storage space.

2. Only look at relevant to-do items

Managing cognitive load with tools - Things 3 app preview
(source: Things 3)

If you have many projects on the go at the same time and a busy personal life as well, managing your to-do lists could be a challenge. Many of us resort to a mixture of notes stuck on our monitor, a paper to-do list and a phone app. This can be overwhelming because it’s hard to track the priority, deadlines and number of tasks at any one point.

To remove the anxiety that results from a long list of to-do items in several places, consolidate all lists you might keep into a single to-do application on your phone and ensure you always have access to it.

If you haven’t done this yet, here’s how to set up an organised to-do system:

  • Create an Inbox
    If your app doesn’t already have one, create an ‘Inbox’ where you put all new tasks before you schedule them and move them to the appropriate sublist.
  • Create sublists
    These are lists for each separate client, project and personal activity so you can group to-do items together.
  • Put all your tasks into the app
    Get any lingering tasks out of your head, off sticky notes, your notebook or anywhere else and put them into the app. I call this a ‘brain dump’.
  • Schedule tasks
    Make sure you set review dates and deadlines with enough time to complete the work.
  • Sort tasks
    Move tasks from the Inbox into the relevant sublists.

When all your to-do items are in the app, you reduce your cognitive load because you don’t need to remember the details – the app does it for you.

 Going forward, here’s how to keep your to-do list in good shape

  • Put every new task into your Inbox
    Don’t write things down just put them into the app. Make sure you always have access to your to-do list so you can forget about tasks when you’ve added them to the app.
  • Review your list regularly
    Take 10 minutes at the beginning and end of your day to review your Inbox and planned items. Use this time to schedule and sort new tasks, and make sure you have a manageable workload for today and tomorrow. If you can’t complete an item, bounce it to a later date.

3. Structure your time in blocks

Many freelancers I know struggle to determine how much work they can take on and when, especially when they have to juggle two or three clients at a time. This is often complicated by ambitious personal projects and a busy social life.

Calendars don’t always help because they divide the day into 1-hour blocks and it can be more useful to look at your time in terms of longer blocks of time.

Create a time block table in a spreadsheet or on paper and ‘block out’ activities as they happen in your week:

Time slot Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday
7.00 – 9.00 admin client 2 client 1 admin
9.00 – 13.00 client 1 client 1 client 2 client 1 client 3
13.00 – 14.00 meeting meeting
14.00 – 17.00 client 1 client 1 client 2 client 1 personal
17.00 – 19.00 workshop meeting personal
19.00 – 21.00 yoga workshop R&D yoga

Everyone has a different rhythm so allocate your blocks of time to suit you. For example, 7am might be a very early start for some, while others might find their productivity is already low by 6pm.

This technique allows you to see the time you can ‘spend’ on your activities and get a good overview of your workload at a glance. It isn’t a rigid framework but more of a tool to use when you’re evaluating new project proposals, contract extensions and ideas for personal projects.

4. Let technology help you

Mobile phone features like notifications, reminders and alerts are meant to help us remember important tasks or events. Unfortunately, most of us suffer from notification fatigue because we receive so many messages.

However, you can instead use technology to help you. Here are two phone features I use to minimise distractions while I’m working:

  • ‘Do Not Disturb’ mode
    I set this to minimise interruptions. You can also use this feature to automatically change your status on apps like Skype or Slack to let your co-workers know you’re busy.
  • Geo-location and shortcuts
    I use the iOS location feature and shortcuts app to trigger actions when my devices detect I arrive or leave specific locations, such as my client’s office. For example, to automatically activate/deactivate Do Not Disturb mode, or to suppress notifications.
    You could also use the geo-location feature to log start and end times to use in your invoices.

Further reading

I hope you’ll find the techniques I’ve outlined are a low-effort starting point to streamline your workflows without using a more involved methodology like Getting Things Done (GTD).

To go deeper, here are some places to find inspiration:

About Florian Einfalt

Florian is an independent software developer based in London. He’s one of the co-founders of flow.studio, a product development platform for startups and SMEs in the fashion industry. With his background in the Visual Effects industry, Florian has designed and implemented workflows at post-production facilities of all sizes and is now bringing this experience to this exciting and thriving sector. Having run his own business for the past 5 years, he’s writing about modern business and workflow methods that emphasise agility and low overhead on his blog.

Photo by Retha Ferguson, published on Pexls

Florian Einfalt author profile

Florian Einfalt

Co-founder & CEO at flow.studio

Tide Member

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